Here and there over the past weeks, I’ve been trying to understand how spotting works in sheep — particularly in the Romeldales, who are known for their sometimes extensive spotting. I’ve discussed this before, showing examples of some of what I have seen in our lambs and explaining that although the experts tell us the workings of the spotting genes, things don’t seem to work the way we’ve been told. I’ve put together a database of almost three hundred lambs, detailing their sires and dams and inventorying their spots, hoping to figure out the genetics that the experts don’t realize are not yet explained.
For weeks I’ve been sitting at my computer, sifting and sorting the data, hoping against hope that at some point I would organize it in just the right way so that the mechanism would suddenly become obvious. Unfortunately, that has not happened, and in spite of all the interesting things I have learned about spotting, I’m still as puzzled now as I was when I began. Like many similar adventures, the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t yet know — and so I keep pushing on!
As I was re-sorting my database this past weekend, I suddenly had an aha moment! In my search for answers, I had put together a little chart centering around our breeding ewe Hope. I knew that although Hope is not particularly heavily spotted, she has brought a LOT of spotting into our flock. I have come to realize that sheep can have lots of spotting and can pass on lots of spotting to their offspring even if they themselves don’t show a lot of it. There is a trigger involved, and if that particular sheep doesn’t have the correct trigger, we never really know how much spotting might be hidden in their genetics, just waiting to pop up in the lambs of the next generation who inherit the trigger from the other parent. Hope is one of these, I believe. She isn’t heavily spotted herself, but her sons prove that when the trigger — whatever it might be — is applied, the white spotting is nearly overwhelming. The photo on the left proves that her son Josiah obviously got the trigger!
I drafted the chart of Hope’s breedings and lambs to try to figure out how the spotting passes. I put her name in the middle and listed my abbreviations for her spotting just below her name. I then began to draw arrows from her to her lambs. Each arrow stood for one pairing with a particular ram, whose name was put along the arrow. Each lamb has its areas of spotting listed below their name. I was certain that this could help me figure things out — and I was kind of right. It helped me visualize what was being passed in Hope’s line and which spots appeared only occasionally.
In the process, I also realized something else — there is a pattern. I can now look at a photo of a spotted lamb from one angle and pretty well predict the other locations in which I will find spotting. Obviously my brain has subconsciously noticed a pattern that still eludes my conscious mind — a fact I find particularly frustrating because a logical awareness of the pattern is my goal. Yet the frustration is also pushing me forward. I know that there is a pattern; now I just need to figure it out.
And that leads me to the big paper. At some point last weekend, I suddenly realized that I was on the right track with Hope’s little chart, but I needed more — a lot more. I needed to somehow do the same thing for all of our sheep — all fifty Romeldale breeding ewes who have produced the lambs in our inventory/database, plus all of our nineteen breeding rams with whom they were paired over the years. Exactly how to put all of this together on one single chart was not clear to me, but I knew it needed to be done. It also needed to be color-coded so that the passing of the genes could be seen in an overview of the chart. The scope of this project seemed huge, but I know from experience that every huge project begins with a single step — in this case, a BIG piece of paper. Where the heck could I get a piece of paper that big?
So I did what any modern woman might do: I went to Amazon! I typed big paper into the search window, and suddenly there was the solution to my problem — a single roll of paper that was four feet wide by fifty feet long! I ordered it and began looking for sets of markers for the colored portions of the project. Minutes later, I had ordered those too!
I’ve been waiting for my shipment of paper and markers to arrive like a kid waiting for Christmas — and I just heard the delivery vehicle bring them up the drive and the postal worker set them on the front porch. My huge project is ready to get underway! I’ll begin with an 8’x 8′ piece of paper, putting the oldest ewes and rams in the middle and working my way outwards, ending with the most recent lambs on the outer edges. Who knows how large the finished chart might be.
Spotting, beware! I’m now armed with big paper and lots of colored markers. The days of mysterious spotting are numbered — I hope — but only time will tell!